Gerald Ford Slipped Here

28 04 2009


“That’s nothing that flossing and a good dental hygienist can’t remove.” (Stone Town, Zanzibar)


On buildings all over the world there are plaques and signs commemorating famous people who were born, died, lived or sometimes just fell over therein. Some are quite fascinating, others utterly bemusing. If it’s a house in which Michelangelo sculpted, Machiavelli schemed, Casanova seduced, Beethoven composed or Hemingway wrote, they are well worth a detour and a photograph, but if it’s somewhere that Paris Hilton once lost her chihuahua, not so much. Sometimes the buildings don’t have signs and it’s only local knowledge that identifies them – like the building in the backstreets of Zanzibar where Farrokh Bulsara – later better know as Freddie Mercury – grew-up.


Few people plan their travels solely around these spots, but if in the neighbourhood many of us swing by for a glimpse or possibly even a visit if the building now houses a museum, no matter how modest.  However, there are some people who do follow the trails of their heroes and tour companies who make it easy to do so.


Of course, it would be possible to read Che Guevara’s ‘Motorcycle Diaries’, pick up a detailed Michelin map of South America, hire a motorbike, pack a sleeping bag and tent, a wad of pesos and follow the route yourself, but that’s a lot of work for the average person with two weeks annual vacation. Instead, there are companies who are more than happy to lead you on at least part of his route and show you a few iconic spots along the way. An air-conditioned minibus doesn’t quite capture the spirit of Guevara and Granado’s adventures aboard La Poderosa, but for those with a keen interest in the Argentine revolutionary, it at least gives them a taste of what he saw several decades ago.


There are trips that take you to spots that were inspirational for artists or poets, or that follow in the footsteps of adventurers or explorers…but not that many for famous tax collectors or politicians, possibly because tax and politics are two of the last things people like to think of when on vacation. However, there is one new one that is an exception.


Earlier this year the “Roots of Obama” tour was introduced in Kenya. In addition to visiting the usual sites like Nakuru National Park and the Masai Mara, the trip heads to western Kenya and its towns and markets before landing in ‘Obama land’. There are visits to Kogelo, the birthplace of Barack Obama Senior. A member of the family leads visitors through the village to discover the family’s roots and to visit the household. There’s a walk to Nyangoma to visit Senator Obama High School and all along there are tastes of the local warmth and hospitality and plenty of traditional food!


Even without the connection to the 44th president, this trip provides a glimpse of real Kenyan life that passes completely unnoticed for almost all visitors – even if you don’t get to see where Gerald Ford fell down.



Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan © 2009

Life’s A Beach

6 02 2009


     “I know I left the beach here somewhere!”     (low-tide fishermen, Zanzibar)


According to the highest purveyor of all encompassing wisdom in the world – the internet – there are 356,000 kilometres of coastline in the world. And while not all of it may be fine white sand overhung with tropical palm trees and lapped by crystal clear blue waters, in the middle of winter when we’re digging out our driveway or trying to prevent heat-seeking ice-crystals from penetrating the ring-of-wool around our necks, almost any beach sounds pretty appetising.


Each year, millions of people around the world flee south – or north – away from inclement weather to drop and flop on a sun-soaked beach. Many want nothing more than the classic guzzle-and-tan holiday: a resort which offers all-you-can-eat food extravaganzas, unlimited umbrella-festooned drinks and afternoon karaoke by the pool. However, for someone who wants a bit more, there are still more than 300,000 kilometres of coastline to choose from.


Zanzibar is everyone’s idea of a tropical island. It sits off the coast of Tanzania in east Africa, surrounded by the deliciously warm and clear waters of the Indian Ocean and protected by coral reefs. It is an island rich with history and culture from Sultans and harems, to revolutions and intrigue. At one time it was the centre of the Arab slave trade. Later, it was the starting point for expeditions by legendary names like Stanley, Livingstone, Burton and Speke. Its capital city, Stone Town, is a labyrinth of narrow lanes inaccessible by vehicles and untouched by history. Although there are a few modern resorts at the island’s north, there are also small properties hidden along its pristine coastline.


After an hour’s drive through small villages, banana and coconut plantations and along a bumpy dirt track, we arrived at one such place perched on a cliff. The hotel offered a hand-full of cottages overlooking the sea and surrounded by flowering bushes and immaculate lawns. There was a small restaurant where the menu was dictated by the catch of the day and whatever was available in the local market and then prepared to your requirements. And that was all.


There was no sprawling buffet, no mega-bar, no afternoon Pilates class, no spa, no disco, no internet café and no television or minibar in the rooms. What there was was the song of birds, the crash of waves and not a single other soul in sight.


The beach stretched as far as a rocky outcrop in one direction and meandered away among palm trees in the other. Apart from a few hundred tiny crabs scampering towards the water, it was completely deserted. The water was warm, clear and flawless and the only other swimmers were schools of colourful fish.


At night we slept with the windows open serenaded by the crash of the waves, the gentle whirr of the ceiling fan and the strange sounds of frogs and nightlife. We would awake to find a breakfast tray outside our door and sit and watch the seaweed farmers tending their crops while the tide was still out. Days were spent swimming, reading, watching the occasional dhow sail past and eating the freshest calamari in the world. By evening it was the myriad stars overhead and dinner by flickering torchlight.


There are beaches and then there are beaches. Our little slice of paradise might have seemed to have offered considerably less than the resorts further up the coast, but it also cost considerably less. Sometimes, however, less is more and as we made our way back towards Stone Town and our flight home, we really wished we had spent more time on our private beach.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Cruel And Unusual Punishment

27 10 2008

Not runway, I said run away! Run away!!!      (Zanzibar Airport, Tanzania)

Torture was banned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but I know for certain that it is still practiced with ruthless efficiency in Zanzibar.


After a wonderful week exploring the legendary Spice Island we returned to the airport for our return flight across the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. The airport was a simple facility: we checked-in at one of two counters and had the lone Customs officer stamp our passports. We were diligenty and politely searched by hand-held metal detectors before being waved through to the departure lounge.


Our home for the next 90 minutes was a single room structure with a few rows of well-used chairs bolted together. There was a small shop selling souvenirs to those who needed one last shot of Zanzibari retail therapy. There was a small counter offering basic drinks and snacks, a pay phone and a washroom. And that was it. Like all departure lounges, once in there was no way out except to board your aircraft…unless you wanted to raise great suspicion and invite interrogation.


We sat and gazed through the large windows at the airstrip beyond. Green grass spread to the scrub brush on the far side of the airfield beneath a flawless blue sky.


Although efficient, everything was laid-back and calm and consequently the temporary residents were suitably relaxed.


Until the music began.


I love music. I have rather eclectic taste that ranges from classical to jazz, golden era to classic rock, new wave and punk right up to the present day. When I travel I love the local sounds and invariably pick up a CD or two to play at home. I have an open mind and although I’m no expert, I know what I like…and what I didn’t like was what I was beginning to recognise.


The first few notes sounded disturbingly familiar. It certainly wasn’t African or even Arabic. It was western and…Celine Dion.


I should mention that I can not sing to save my life. In fact, the sound of my voice actually endangers my life and the lives of those within ear-shot. I can’t carry a tune if it has shoulder straps and is securely placed on my back. My attempt at whistling is unrecognisable and humming sounds like a poorly tuned lawn-mower at the bottom of a lake. Celine Dion has a magnificent voice and having attended one of her concerts in pennance for sins committed in a past life, I can honestly say that she puts on a good show and seems like a nice person. I just don’t particularly care for her music. I would even choose Kenny G ahead of her, and that says a lot.


The start of the next song sounded equally familiar…and it was again Dion. As was the third, fourth and fifth. Just as one’s heart can go on and on, so did the entire album.  I had no iPod or ear plugs and, being held captive, no reprieve from one of my worst nightmares.


I gazed longingly at my watch only to discover there was still more than an hour. I tried to read, to count the tiles on the floor, to stare at the blue sky beyond and find a happy place…but nothing worked. Eventually, the album came to an end. There was silence. My hair began to settle back down and my ramrod-straight back slowly eased. The sounds of spoons tinkling in cups at the snack bar, the buzz of the ceiling fan and the roar of aircraft engines were music to my ears. After a shortwhile, there was a gentle crackle from the speakers signalling something new. It couldn’t possibly be worse than the previous album, I mused.


The hiss eased across the room followed by the first notes. They again sounded familiar. Extremely familiar. It was the same album again…only louder. As the first tears started to well in the corners of my eyes I stared desperately at my watch. Still almost 30 minutes to go. I glanced at the plastic spoons at the snack bar and wondered how long it would take to cut off a limb with one.



Photo post by: Simon Vaughan

The Human Stain

6 08 2008

Slave chamber

The Arab Slave Market, Stone Town, Zanzibar

I have never been to Auschwitz, Dachau or Buchenwald; never visited the Killing Fields of Cambodia or the genocide memorials in Rwanda. My omission has been neither through a lack of desire or squeamishness, but simply because my travels have yet to take me there.  Those I know who have been have said they were changed by the experience. I can’t imagine that anyone could remain unchanged after visiting any site of such epic barbarity, hatred and depravity.


For most of us, travel is an escape from the everyday norm. It is a diversion and distraction from the stresses of work and the tedium of laundry and shopping. Whether we’re lying on a beach, visiting ancient sights or hiking in the wilderness, travel provides us all with a much-needed break and revitalises our souls and our minds. But some travel transcends mere entertainment or relaxation, brings us face to face with our darkest side and becomes a life experience.


One of the greatest crimes against humanity is also one of the most ancient: slavery. Since the beginning of time, people have incarcerated others; traded, sold and transported them as possessions and dehumanised, mistreated, assaulted, tortured and murdered them. It is estimated that there are presently 27 million people in slavery throughout the world, more than at any other point in history. For many, the reality for those who are enslaved today is no less horrific than for those who crossed the Atlantic in their millions in centuries past.


In a small building in the centre of Stone Town, Zanzibar, sits the slave market through which an estimated one million African slaves passed on their way to the Middle East. Little still remains of the market today, except for a basement chamber in which the slaves were held before being sold and loaded onto dhows for the sea voyage to Arabia.


There is nothing even slightly commercial about the chamber. It is a sombre place accessed through a simple entrance, devoid of all tourist-trappings, as it should be. The ceiling is low and little light penetrates the small windows carved in the thick stone. When in use, there were no windows at all. No light. No air. No reprieve from stifling heat and humidity, from the crush of bodies, from illness and death. There are two chambers: one for men and one for women and children. From the walls and ceiling hang great iron chains and manacles.


There are no artist’s illustrations, scale models or animatronic figures to convey what things were like because they are not necessary.  There is nothing architecturally oppressive about these rooms, because the weight of history is sufficient. It requires little knowledge and no imagination to picture tired, hungry, terrified and ill humans pressed in; to hear their sobs and moans; to taste their fear, despondency and utter helplessness. To ache for the grotesque inhumanity and greed that led others to sail to these shores to steal the innocence of childhood, the sanctity of family, the essence of dignity and the very breath of life.


When the walls and ceiling press in too much, we are free to climb the stone steps and emerge into the blazing light of day. We can stand in silence and gaze at the clear blue sky, feel the refreshing breeze on our cheeks and sate our thirst on bottled water or Coke. Unlike those who preceded us, we can go home whenever we like, not be forever separated from our loved ones and transported to distant shores for a life of ritual abuse, brutal labour, cruel servitude and an untimely death.


When we have had enough we may leave the slave market forever, but I defy anyone to have the slave market forever leave them.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 8/18

14 07 2008

Confessions, musings and tips from a snap-happy wanderer.


Zanzibar market

Stone Town, Zanzibar


Photograph everyday life.


Some of the best sights when travelling aren’t on the sightseeing maps at all, they are the snaps of everyday life. Photographs of market places, or buses, people, homes or stray dogs. If something strikes you as being interesting, it will probably have a similar affect on anyone who looks at your pictures. If you’re going to photograph people though, always be respectful and ask permission first. You wouldn’t want a gang of tourists snapping pics of you buying socks or squaffing a hot dog during a hurried lunch break standing on a street corner…would you?


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Of Mosques, Minarets and Memories

18 06 2008

Nile night

The Upper Nile.

There is nothing more evocative than the call to prayer from a mosque. Nothing transports me quicker to narrow souks, humid evenings, dusty streets or fresh mornings than the sound of a muezzin’s hypnotic voice drifting through the air. Although heard in parts of London, Sydney or Toronto, it is a sound that for me will always be synonymous with wonderful travels, great experiences, new cuisine and the silhouettes of minarets dominating a simple skyline.


My first exposure came in Zanzibar as I walked through the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town. The call echoed from an unseen minaret, hidden by whitewashed homes and businesses and pulsing in the gentle sea breezes. Early the following morning, the call drifted between the wooden slats of my open window shutters and through the mosquito netting that covered my rustic four-poster bed, rousing me from my sleep.


In Egypt, from an unseen village it eased across the Nile like a gentle mist. Our felucca was moored to the bank of the life-giving river and we had settled down for the night. The Sahara, which swept away in either direction as far as the eye could see, had surrendered the extreme heat of the day leaving a slight chill rising from the water.  We were lying on the deck in our sleeping bags, watching the moon cast its spell across the tranquil river when the muezzin’s voice suddenly rose from nowhere. We listened in silence as the water gently lapped at our wooden hull.


Istanbul 1

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul


In Istanbul it competed with the rush of traffic. At street level, the minarets were hidden by skyscrapers and concrete office towers, but despite the cacophony of big city noise, the ancient call still cut through the din. Turning away from modern roads we wandered through the narrowing side streets. The sun had set and there was little light. Indistinguishable figures slipped past in the growing darkness while the call grew louder the further we ventured from the main thoroughfare. We turned a corner and a warm yellow light poured from the mosque’s doors as people hurried in for prayer. Glancing skyward, the minaret was a jet silhouette against the subtle deep blue glow of the surrounding city.


For the devoted, it is a call to prayer. For me, it is a call to exotic lands and rich memories.



Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Spot the Man

13 06 2008

 Zanzibar tree

“Can you pick up a couple of coconuts on the way home, honey?”




(Coconut farmer, Zanzibar)

 Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008